New pre-election spending rules seem designed to benefit incumbent Liberals

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference in Montreal, Thursday, July 4, 2019, where he announced a funding investment into the Montreal Metro blue line. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Whatever case can be made for federal investment in an extension of Montreal’s subway system, the prime minister’s announcement this past week raises some questions.

For one: why now? Did they really just decide in the last few days that they needed to contribute $1.3 billion to this project, which doesn’t even have a final price tag? That seems hard to believe. Two: why did it necessitate bringing the prime minister to Montreal? The announcement could have been made in Ottawa, could have been made in a press release, or could have been made by another government representative.

One suspects that there was more to this decision than simply the merits of this particular transit project. Clearly, there was political value in having Justin Trudeau in Montreal pledging a significant amount of money to a project in that city, which is, of course, contingent on Trudeau’s re-election in the October election. So while this was dressed up as government business, it was basically a campaign promise from the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

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We are not yet officially into an election campaign, but we are essentially into the election pre-season. Under the definition laid out by the Liberal government’s own Election Modernization Act, the “pre-writ” period came into effect as of June 30 – just a few days before Trudeau’s announcement. Moreover, the Montreal announcement is hardly the only example of this.

The significance of the pre-writ period is that as of June 30, political parties are constrained in the amount of money they can spend on advertising – no more than $2 million. So it certainly seems like a contradiction that the Liberals believe that political messaging should be limited during this period, yet they are essentially in campaign mode themselves, ensuring that their political message reaches as many Canadians as possible.

It’s disingenuous, too, because while ostensibly the Liberals are under the same constraints as the other parties, the various tools of government are not available to those other parties. Why should the Liberals bother with an ad campaign in Montreal to tout a promise of new subway funding when the prime minister can fly his government jet into town for an official government announcement?

If the Conservatives or NDP wish to convey their position on this matter to voters in Montreal, they will have to get a little more creative, while of course being mindful of the rules of this pre-writ period. This hardly seems fair.

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Yes, there is a time-honoured tradition in Canadian politics of parties lamenting this sort of campaigning on the taxpayer’s dime while in opposition and then taking advantage of it when in power. The Liberals could certainly argue that they are not the first to engage in this, but it requires a fair amount of cynicism to be impressed with such reasoning.

In the Liberals’ defence, their Election Modernization Act did limit government advertising during this pre-writ period, solving at least one problem that has existed in the past. However, the considerable amount of media coverage that an appearance and announcement by the prime minister can generate is basically tantamount to free advertising.

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So if the Liberals are comfortable with having their leader and other cabinet ministers flying all over the country making announcements or reminding people of previous announcements in what is a defined pre-writ period, then the spending limits on parties need to go. Alternatively, we could bring in stricter restrictions on government spending announcements during this period.

The whole point of creating this pre-writ period was to “enhance transparency and ensure a fair and level playing field for political actors.” So long as the Liberals are maximizing the advantages of incumbency, then there is not a fair and level playing field.

Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.

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